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The universal language of `Babel'

Playing a deaf-mute teenager in the multilingual film, Rinko Kikuchi found that in communication, it's the effort that matters.

October 29, 2006|Sorina Diaconescu | Special to The Times

ALEJANDRO Gonzalez Inarritu's "Babel" weaves vivid narrative vignettes set in Morocco, Mexico, the U.S. and Japan into a sprawling meditation on the universality of the human condition -- loss, love, the misery of miscommunication, the uplift of grace. Uniquely arresting among tens of protagonists is Chieko, an impetuous, deaf-mute Tokyo teenager grappling with her mother's suicide and her own transition into womanhood. As embodied by 25-year-old Rinko Kikuchi, Chieko is an unstable compound of bravura, heartache, silliness and sexual innuendo.

Her face, framed by pink-dipped wisps of hair, mutates from anger to amusement in a flash. And whether she surrenders herself to a silent embrace with a stranger or slips off her panties to flash boys in a pizza parlor, her behavior seesaws from sweet to outrageous with typical adolescent swagger.

Since "Babel" premiered at Cannes last spring, Kikuchi's ability to convey the ordinary and extraordinary nature of her character has drawn acclaim. Chieko's extensive use of sign language in almost every scene demanded mastery of the skill, which Kikuchi taught herself over the course of the full year she spent auditioning for the part.

"Because Chieko cannot communicate by talking, she has other, even more powerful ways to express her feelings. It was very appealing to me," Kikuchi explained through an interpreter during a recent interview. Filmmaker Inarritu was intent on casting a deaf-mute actress for the part and auditioned prospectives for months. But Kikuchi was unrelenting. "Every time I came back for another audition, I was more prepared," she said.

She attended a school for the hearing-impaired to bone up on sign language until her command became strong enough to allow for a natural rapport with her non-professional, deaf-mute costars -- especially Yuko Murata, who plays her best friend in the film. "It's very strange, but when I'm around deaf people, [signing] now comes naturally," Kikuchi said. Eventually, her determination and insistence on inhabiting the part completely won Inarritu over. "I was always Chieko, even off the set," she said. "I dressed like a teenager and I tried to use sign language all the time. It was hard in a way -- but I always found some pleasure in it."

The actress approached a recent whirlwind press tour to promote the film, which opened Friday, with similar resolve. Late afternoon on her second day of nonstop interviews, she's discreetly stifling yawns and longing to steal away to Venice Beach for a few hours. Instead, encased in glamorous head-to-toe black (miniskirt, ruffled silk blouse, fishnets, stiletto ankle boots -- "everything Chanel except for the underwear," she points out) she braces herself for one last barrage of inquiries. "I'm not used to this at all, but I'm trying to answer all the questions as plain and clear as possible," she said politely.

Lost in Hollywood?

SHE'S been acting in Japanese films for more than a decade, but this was her first experience making and promoting a film in Hollywood. The media proceedings bring to mind the droll tenor of Sofia Coppola's "Lost in Translation" rather than the biblical gravitas of "Babel" -- and make her giggle a lot -- but she expressed earnest enthusiasm at the prospect of "work in various countries."

Though she took direction from Inarritu through translators, their collaboration was especially fruitful. "Because the audition process took a whole year, we had time to get to know each other, and by the time the shooting started we had built trust and understanding," she said. And the challenge of performing on the multilingual film set in Tokyo for one month in November 2005 dovetailed with what Kikuchi found to be "Babel's" message: that true communication is sometimes born out of miscommunication.

"Two people can feel trapped because they can't communicate -- but they make an effort -- and the detour might bring them even closer in the end. Sometimes miscommunication can be positive; it's not always pain."

"We lived the story behind the camera as much as we tried to tell it on film; this struggle to communicate was something that was very much part of the process," said producer Jon Kilik. "Though Alejandro did not understand Japanese and Rinko at that time did not know any English, they established a very close bond on a human, emotional level."

Born in Kanagawa, Japan, Kikuchi made her on-screen debut at 15. "I was a teenager but I played a 25-year-old woman -- exactly the opposite of 'Babel,' " she recalled. Her trajectory included stints in commercials, fashion pictorials and music videos, and her film roles have been "sometimes very comical, sometimes very dramatic and sometimes very ordinary," she said. "But I took every one of them seriously." Most recently, she has appeared in an adaptation of a manga comic and a comedy titled "Funky Forest."

Though her next project is another Japanese comedy, with a title roughly translated in English as "A Bug Not in a Picture Book," her manager says she's been fielding calls about work opportunities in Hollywood. Ideally, Kikuchi would love to work with filmmakers Ken Loach, Tim Burton and Woody Allen -- "and countless others, of course," she added diplomatically. "I really don't have any hang-ups and I like to take the challenges of any kind of role."

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